IN THE FIRST room of the new (and often misogynist…since the curator seemed more interested as Barbara as Nicholson’s lover and his influence than her art) Barbara Hepworth exhibition at Tate Britain, are her early, smaller, table sized sculptures. They’re mainly of animals and a few torsos – a curled snake, a couple of birds, mother and child etc. They are all smooth, almost tactile objects, from which any extraneous ornamentation has been excised. The result, are objects that resemble talismans; iconic representations of the spirit of the animal or human suggested by their forms. By the late 30’s and 40’s when Hepworth was in her ascendency, abstract sculpture was by no means new. However these almost abstract, shapes, merely suggestive, like Platonic forms, of their inspirations seem to herald a fresh kind of visual perspective.
They have such a caressable, tactile quality – pushing the three dimensional density of sculpture into a dimension of touch – that you wonder where Jonathan Ive’s Apple designs would be had there been no Hepworth.
Many of her works are simply called, “Form Number One” etc. Imagine being able to give birth…to bring a new form, like a new colour, into the world? Artists are gods.
These early works feel as though Hepworth had reached back a millennia to rob the past of some of its images, stripping away the eschatology and inserting her own spiritual energy. As a result, somehow the early sculpture on show wouldn’t feel out of place had they been exhumed from the dark bowels of some sand blasted pyramid.
And yet, they belong in another world.
As her career progressed, the forms become larger, more abstract. But their inspiration remains the natural world. She has translated the landscape around her – natural rock formations, trees – into her, burnished, re-shaped perspective and infused it with a point of view and meaning.
It’s almost landscape sculpture. She has reframed the external universe into her own perspective
To that point, it’s interesting to compare her work – and how far sculpture had come at this period – with, say the work of Rodin (see below). His large muscular sculptures have a strong narrative drive… clear expressions of an idea, an historical point of view. Of these you can ask the question, “What does it mean?” and engage with the work through this perspective. Hayworth’s work operates at a different level. “What does it mean?” becomes a meaningless question.
Her wooden pieces glorify the material – the wood glows. The pieces breathe. It’s as if Hayworth had seduced rather than chopped it into its forms. Far from Plato’s dumb-ass criticism that art is mere imitation (of nature), here art IS its own nature.
Often placed as they are, outdoors (she was fastidious on where they were located) these -man made- objects offer an interesting dynamic: amidst the mutability of nature, their timelessness impose an ontological shock. Here are works inspired by the natural environment that feel both naturally in their right places and still incongruously out of place. They’re as meaningless and impractical and as critically vital as, say, a tree or a stream, or a chance encounter with an idea. They force viewers to engage with them both as objects qua objects and also as a means of refocusing on their surroundings.
We tend to take art for granted as something that hangs on a museum wall or some place of hallowed power and importance (which of course du Champ turned on its head). But the strategic location of the works of sculptors such as Hepworth, Henry Moore or, of late, Anthony Gormley, so abruptively there, forcing viewers to stumble upon them with all the shock of bumping into a friend or a sudden naked man is a fundamental part of the dynamic of the art.
Street art – Keith Herring (back in the day) and now Bansky, Stick Man etc is, like Pop Art was in the 60’s, probably some of the most exciting art around. Literally. But I digress
Her later art – the metal pieces – are stark contrasts to the earlier wooden pieces. Whereas the former felt coaxed into life, these later metal pieces seem to have been wrestled into submission. This is the sculptor exercising her mastery over her material, bending the harsh heavy metal to her will, forcing it to assume surprising curves and twists. It’s as though the material, through its shape is breaking out of its limitations, breaking away from its heavy masculinity to delight and surprise its viewers with an energy and rhythm and, at times, flippancy.
The link with the earlier stone and wood pieces is the organic relationship that seems to exist between sculptor and her material. You feel as though the designs triangulate her strong sense of her environment and the materials themselves. Michaelangelo spoke of sculpting as a means of uncovering of the form within the stone; the sculptor as explorer and discoverer. Her work is so cliché free and honest that some of her work feels like this… as though the tortured curves of her bronzes demanded their creation. And, fortunate for us, she came along.